TITLE: Teachers and Programming Languages as Permission Givers AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 24, 2011 10:23 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Over spring break, I read another of William Zinsser's essays at The American Scholar, called Permission Givers. Zinsser talks about importance of people who give others permission to do, to grow, and to explore, especially in a world that offers so many freedoms but is populated with people and systems that erect barriers at every turn. My first reaction to the paper was as a father. I have recognized our elementary and high schools as permission-denying places in a way I didn't experience them as a student myself, and I've watched running the gauntlet of college admissions cause a bright, eager, curious child to wonder whether she is good enough after all. But my rawest emotions were fear and hope -- fear that I had denied my children permission too often, and hope that on the whole I had given them permission to do what they wanted to do and become who they can be. I'm not talking about basic rules; some of those are an essential part of learning discipline and even cultivating creativity. I mean encouraging the sense of curiosity and eagerness that happy, productive people carry through life. The best teachers are permission givers. They show students some of what is possible and then create conditions in which students can run with ideas, put them together and take them apart, and explore the boundaries of their knowledge and their selves. I marvel when I see students creating things of beauty and imagination; often, there is a good teacher to be found there as well. I'm sad whenever I see teachers who care deeply about students and learning but who sabotage their students' experience by creating "a long trail of don'ts and can'ts and shouldn'ts", by putting subtle roadblocks along the path of advancement. I don't think that by nature I am permission giver, but over my career as a teacher I think I've gotten better. At least now I am more often aware of when I'm saying 'no' in subtle and damaging ways, so that I can change my behavior, and I am more often aware of the moments when the right words can help a student create something that matters to them. In the time since I read the essay, another strange connection formed in my mind: Some programming languages are permission givers. Some are not. Python is a permission giver. It doesn't erect many barriers that get in the way of the novice, or even the expert, as she explores ideas. Ruby is a permission giver, too, but not to the extent that Python is. It's enough more complex syntactically and semantically that things don't always work the way one first suspects. As a programmer, I prefer Ruby for the expressiveness it affords me, but I think that Python is the more empowering language for novices. Simplicity and consistency seem to be important features of permission-giving languages, but they are probably not sufficient. Another of my favorite languages, Scheme, is simple and offers a consistent model of programming and computation, but I don't think of it as a permission giver. Likewise Haskell. I don't think that the tired argument between static typing and dynamic typing is at play here. Pascal had types but it was a permission giver. Its descendant Ada, not so much. I know many aficionados of other languages often feel differently. Haskell programmers will tell me that their language makes them so productive. Ada programmers will tell me how their language helps them build reliable software. I'm sure they are right, but it seems to me there is a longer learning curve before some languages feel like permission givers to most people. I'm not talking about type safety, power, or even productivity. I'm talking about the feeling people have when they are deep in the flow of programming and reach out for something they want but can't quite name... and there it is. I admit, too, that I also have beginners in mind. Students who are learning to program, more than experts, need to be given permission to experiment and persevere. I also admit that this idea is still new in mind and is almost surely colored heavily by my own personal experiences. Still, I can't shake the feeling that there is something valuable in this notion of language as permission giver. ~~~~ If nothing else, Zinsser's essay pointed me toward a book I'd not heard of, Michelle Feynman's Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, a collection of the personal and professional letters written by her Nobel Prize-winning father. Even in the most mundane personal correspondence, Richard Feynman tells stories that entertain and illuminate. I've only begun reading and am already enjoying it. -----